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Face to Face with Sonya Chavez: There’s a new U.S. marshal in town

Sonya K. Chavez is sworn in by Chief Judge William Johnson, right, as New Mexico’s next U.S. marshal at the Domenici Federal Courthouse on Thursday. Her parents, Tito and Elieen Chavez, hold the Bible. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Editor’s note: Sonya Chavez has been a TV reporter and FBI agent specializing in violent gangs. In an interview with Kent Walz, the Moriarty native describes the twists and turns that led to her becoming New Mexico’s first woman U.S. marshal.

When she was growing up in Torrance County, there were a couple things Sonya Chavez really wanted to do: become a New Mexico State Police officer and drive the family truck while pulling the horse trailer – something her brothers got to do.

But as a girl in a traditional, close-knit household, where Dad worked and Mom stayed home, neither activity was in the cards.

Chavez, who was sworn in Thursday as the first woman U.S. marshal for New Mexico after serving 22 years as an FBI agent, laughed as she recounted those stories in a recent interview.

With no trace of frustration, she talks about those earlier disappointments – perhaps because Chavez has spent the ensuing years not taking no for an answer.

After getting a degree in journalism and mass communications from New Mexico State University, she worked as a television reporter and a spokeswoman for Gov. Bruce King before joining the FBI – where she opted for an assignment working “super gangs” in Chicago before returning to New Mexico in 2010 to launch a gang squad at the FBI here. She also picked up a master’s in public administration from the University of New Mexico.

“When I was a young girl, I somehow became enamored with the New Mexico State Police,” she said. “I was mesmerized by the uniform, and the seriousness of what they did. I remember asking my dad if I could do that, but I grew up in a home where boys could do certain things and girls could do certain things. When I brought it up, my dad looked at me and said, ‘Sonya, State Police? Really?’ ”

“And I still hold it over my dad’s head that he never let me drive the truck with the trailer and he let my brothers,” she says fondly. “I brought it up just the other day.”

But her dad asked her to keep the Chavez name when she married. Sonya agreed.

Legendary job

As a U.S. marshal, Chavez joins an agency founded in 1789 during the administration of President George Washington.

It includes nearly 4,000 marshals, deputy marshals and investigators nationwide. The agency protects the federal judiciary and courthouses, runs a witness protection program and was responsible for escorting students to schools during the Civil Rights movement.

But it is best known for hunting down and arresting fugitives.

“We have violent fugitive task forces across the country and are tasked with locating and apprehending the nation’s most violent fugitives,” Chavez said. “The New Mexico district is one of the largest in terms of caseloads, given that we are a border state and an Indian Country state. So the caseload here is incredible. It affects all of us in law enforcement.”

More than 200 members of the U.S. Marshals Service have been killed in the line of duty, including four since 2015. The agency is steeped in folklore of deputies like Wyatt Earp and silver screen portrayals by actors like Tommy Lee Jones.

The service here has had its challenges, including fatal shootings. The Albuquerque Police Department has pulled out of the U.S. Marshals Service fugitive task force over a policy dispute on use of force.

Chavez hopes to mend fences and cites her years of working with local officers in Chicago and here in New Mexico.

“I’ve been in task forces, and I recognize that we cannot do our jobs without the police officers sitting next to us … going through doors with us, helping us write the warrants, recruit the informants and put these investigations together. I know those partnerships are really critical.”

The marshal – there are 94 districts nationally – is a political appointee of the president, but, as the process has evolved, a strong professional background in law enforcement is required. Chavez has been designated as acting marshal by the U.S. Attorney General, pending Senate confirmation. These approvals have moved slowly in Washington of late, but no objection to her confirmation is anticipated.

Her name was put forward by both Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Rep. Steve Pearce, the state’s lone congressional Republican, and she emerged at the top of the list after a series of checks and interviews that involved congressional staff, federal law enforcement and administration representatives.

Only three other women are currently serving as U.S. marshals. Ronald Reagan appointed the first, Faith Evans, in 1982, and Chavez thinks she will be the first Hispanic woman to serve in this capacity.

Asked about her political party registration, Chavez didn’t answer, except to say that no one had asked her that question during the process.

Chavez will retire from the FBI – where she works civil rights cases – to take the new post.

She succeeds Conrad Candelaria, a former APD officer, who resigned in February. The office is currently under the supervision of the chief deputy marshal from St. Louis.

FBI agent

It’s an understatement to say Chavez had an odd career path to federal law enforcement.

Carol K.O. Lee, former special agent in charge of the FBI Albuquerque Division, left, hugs Sonya K. Chavez, a 22-year FBI veteran, at Chavez’s swearing-in as New Mexico’s next U.S. marshal on Thursday. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Inspired by news anchor Carla Aragon – with whom she corresponded as a sixth grader and again after graduating from college – she majored in journalism and got a job as a TV reporter in San Angelo, Texas. That’s when she was offered a job working for then-Gov. King as a press aide and spokeswoman.

“I loved it. Flying around in a Lear jet with the governor was really cool.”

She was working as a television reporter during an election year and getting to interview the likes of Michael Dukakis and George Bush. She later worked for the Hispano Chamber of Commerce and a marketing firm.

“I’ve had great mentors and supporters and have had incredibly blessed opportunities and cool jobs,” she said. “But those paled in comparison with what we do at the FBI.”

The thought of being an FBI agent had never occurred to Chavez until she and a friend were paired up on the golf course with a crusty older FBI agent who started talking to her about what he did. Then, a college instructor introduced her to a former special agent in the Albuquerque office, who encouraged her to see the agency’s recruiter here.

She did, but couldn’t get past his assistant, who told Chavez she didn’t have the background the agency was looking for – namely accounting and law.

As she was being ushered out of the building, down a long hallway, “I see this jolly man walking my way, and he says, ‘Hello, young lady, who are you?’ And I said, ‘Sonya Chavez, who are you?’ He said, ‘I’m Jim Garay.’

“And I said, ‘You’re the recruiter Matt Perez told me to come and see,’ and he (Garay) invited me into his office.”

She added, “I did feel sorry for the woman assistant who was just trying to do her job.”

Chavez summed up her experience: “I went there that day with the intention of learning more about the FBI, and I left saying, ‘Sign me up. I’ve got to do this.’

“Ten months later, I was at the FBI Academy in Quantico.”

Super gangs

Chavez’s first posting was in Chicago, where she took an assignment to the gang squad.

“I honestly, naively, thought that since I was a girl who wore skirts, they were going to put me on some white collar squad. But I met an agent from New Mexico, Andy Armijo, and he was on the gang squad and kind of took me under his wing.

“I quickly decided that I’m so out of my comfort zone here in a big city doing a job I never imagined I would do that I might as well just take it to the limit with the gang thing.

“Little did I know it would become such a great opportunity for me, and it was, because of the people there. Otherwise, never in a million years would I have been attracted to a gang task force. It’s high risk and more dangerous than the average job. But I just fell in love with the people there. Senior agents, task force members, Chicago PD, Illinois State Police. I felt cultivated and thought this is where I want to be.” She was assigned to work super gangs, defined as 20,000 members or more nationwide, and focused on the Latin Kings.

“These are massive criminal enterprises. They were organized in chapters. They paid dues, they collected dues. They literally had a box they kept money in. They had a manifesto. They had ‘beating in.’ Their income was drug sales, with some murder for hire.

“I learned so much.”

The task forces built cases and did sweeps.

The biggest takedown she was involved in? “I think it was 79 arrests.”

When she came back to New Mexico in 2010 to establish a gang unit here under the Safe Streets Task Force, “any notion that I was going back to sleepy New Mexico with some time to prop my feet up on the desk quickly dissipated.”

Soon after arriving, she was out with a Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office officer and they pulled a guy over.

“We were always ready, with our vests and weapons, but, after Chicago, I figure the guy would be respectful. Instead, he reaches for a gun under his seat. Luckily, the officer saw that and pulled him out of the car.”

“I thought, I have seriously underestimated what my work here is going to be like.”

Comparing her previous and then-new assignments, Chavez said, “The gang scene here is different from Chicago, but it is serious, compounded by the cartels and the fact we are on the border. But our gangs are the neighborhood variety where members ‘freelance.’ ”

Chavez said the big drug hauls by law enforcement used to be mostly down south, and now they are statewide. Gang “takedowns” by law enforcement here are smaller than in Chicago, but just as impactful.

“You get a call from a little neighbor lady who lives next to the offender, and she says, ‘I just want to thank you because that’s been going on for years, and they would get arrested and they keep doing it.’

“The reality is we know that when we remove a bunch of gang members and drug dealers … they aren’t going to MDC but into the federal prison system, so they aren’t going to be able to continue to exercise influence here.

“It might sound lofty, but we are making lives better for people here.”